Run your finger down a map to the far end of the Americas, and the final town you’ll encounter is Puerto Williams, a remote Chilean outpost on the Beagle Channel. Home to just 3,000 people—including scientists, naval officers, and Indigenous Yahgan fishermen—avid hikers know this place as the start of the southernmost trekking route on Earth.
The five-day Dientes Circuit around Navarino Island begins and ends in Puerto Williams, where feral horses and wayward cows roam windswept streets that hold a small collection of shops (mostly outdoor outfitters), lodgings (hostels and hotels), and restaurants serving king crab, the local specialty.
Of course, the real allure is above in the jagged pinnacles of the Dientes de Navarino mountain range. Here, intrepid hikers find dense forests of Nothofagus trees which lead, over the course of 33 miles, to peat bogs, lakes, and rugged alpine passes with views south toward Cape Horn, the last dot of land before Antarctica.
“Ten or 15 years ago you wouldn’t find anyone walking up there,” says Maurice van de Maele, president of the local tourism board. “This February there was a new record: 48 people departing in one day.” Of course, that’s a far cry from popular Patagonian hikes such as the W Trek, in Chile’s nearby Torres del Paine National Park, which has become so overcrowded you have to reserve campsites well in advance. For now, fewer than 2,000 people tackle the Dientes Circuit each year. Yet, even in this final frontier, tourism numbers are climbing.
In the next year, Puerto Williams will welcome a new multipurpose pier for Antarctica-bound expedition ships, as well as a passenger terminal at its small airport, making access easier than ever before.
Meanwhile, high-speed Wi-Fi and a shiny new research center have opened the town up to the wider world. Although the hostile climate at this latitude (the 55th parallel south) may keep numbers at bay, the Dientes Circuit seems primed for a larger audience.
‘It’s totally wild’
The Dientes Circuit dates back to the late 1990s when Australian adventurer Clem Lindenmayer developed the route for a Lonely Planet trekking guide. Little used in the ensuing years, it nevertheless developed a cult following that’s grown incrementally alongside Patagonia as a destination.
“I remember my first time doing this circuit and the freedom I felt,” recalls Jorge Barbero, founder of Explora Isla Navarino, which leads guided expeditions. “It’s like you’re the first person walking in these mountains because you don’t see a trail for much of the way—it’s totally wild.”
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The circuit begins with a rapid two-mile ascent to Cerro Bandera, a popular day hike among cruise passengers which provides sweeping views over the Beagle Channel. Then, through-hikers follow the Robalo Valley to Laguna del Salto, camping on the first night near a sinewy waterfall. Days two and three involve scrambling over rocky mountain passes, then sinking into wet beech forests to sleep alongside alpine lagoons. Magellanic bog moss makes the path here feel like walking atop a wet sponge, testing the limits of waterproof boots.
Day four is largely uphill, crossing the rocky and wind-battered Paso Virginia back to the north side of Dientes de Navarino to sleep in a sheltered forest below. Day five, by contrast, is mostly downhill toward Puerto Williams through a forest that buzzes with the tip-tapping of Magellanic woodpeckers.
“If the weather cooperates, this is a trip that’s actually quite modest,” Barbero says, noting that the milage and altitude gains aren’t terribly challenging. “But if it doesn’t, it can be much more complicated.” In Patagonia, it’s common to experience all four seasons in a single day. On Navarino Island, locals joke that you can have them all in an hour.
During the short hiking season (November to March), temperatures typically max out around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Puerto Williams and drop well below freezing on mountain passes. Outside of peak austral summer (January and February), it’s not uncommon to wake up to a tent covered in snow, followed by an afternoon of blazing sun. By mid-March, those brave enough to endure snowstorms enjoy spectacular fall foliage.
A beaver problem
Much of the Dientes Circuit lies above the tree line where there’s no defined path. Yet, signposts every half-mile or so keep hikers on track. Forested areas pose different obstacles, including rambling roots, thick bogs, and prickly calafate bushes. The biggest challenge, though, is the beavers, whose dams reroute the trek each year.
Twenty Canadian beavers arrived on the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego, just across the Beagle Channel, back in 1946 to “enrich” the local economy with new industries in fur and castoreum (a gland used to make tinctures for perfume). With no natural predators, the population exploded.
There are now an estimated 60,000 beavers on Navarino Island alone, according to Miguel Gallardo of Navarino Beaver, who takes visitors on tours to see how beavers have destroyed the island’s otherwise pristine forests.
Gallardo is one of just a few people actively working to control the population, eliminating about 60 beavers each year for artisan crafts and culinary experiences. “The properties of beaver meat are actually quite good for humans,” he says, noting that it’s high in fiber and protein (though it does need a good sauce “to cut the bitterness”).
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Beavers create an ideal habitat for other introduced species, namely minks and muskrats, which Gallardo calls “a trilogy of destruction.” The former park ranger hopes an increase in tourism might finally prompt the government to pay more attention to the problem.
The promise and perils of tourism
A strategy to control the beavers remains elusive, but there are plans to make the trek itself more orderly. Currently, there are zero facilities beyond Puerto Williams. Yet, Cristina Altamirano, who heads the municipal tourism office, says there are funds to improve signage, construct dry toilets, and create emergency shelters by the end of 2024.
The infrastructure for tourism in Puerto Williams is growing, too. A new multipurpose pier will open in stages over the next three years with the aim of making this small town a major gateway for trips to Antarctica (companies like Silversea Cruises have already relocated ships here).
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Meanwhile, a passenger terminal will open this year at Guardia Marina Zañartu Airport, which receives six weekly flights (December to March) on Aerovías DAP from the regional Chilean capital of Punta Arenas. Visitors can also travel by boat from Punta Arenas in a spectacular 32-hour journey through the fjords of Alberto de Agostini National Park.
New cafés (Campero), craft breweries (Subantartica Beer House), and hotels (Fío Fío) have opened in recent years to cater to the growth, as has a striking new research institution, Centro Subantártico Cabo de Hornos, for the study of sub-Antarctic ecology. Yet, the town lacks lodgings and restaurants to accommodate more visitors.
David Alday, former president of the local Yahgan community, fears the island may be growing too fast. “The Yahgan community has been present here for thousands of years, and in that time, even when we were large in number, we never produced a great imbalance in the environment,” he says, adding that “the impact on the land is greater today.”
Alday isn’t against tourism; he owns the kayaking company Tánana, which offers excursions in the Beagle Channel showing visitors the seafaring legacy of the Yahgan, who, for nearly 7,000 years, lived further south than any other human population. He just wants tourism’s growth to be sustainable and in line with Yahgan principles of harmony and environmental preservation. “We have to be able to find some balance,” he says, “so that this town doesn’t overflow.”
IF YOU GO
When to go: The route is closed between May and October. Most hikers arrive in the austral summer (mid-December to mid-March) for the best weather.
How to make it happen: Several tour companies offer guided expeditions along the Dientes Circuit, including Explora Isla Navarino, Chile Nativo, and Cascada Expediciones.
Go with Nat Geo: National Geographic Expeditions leads several trips to Chile and Patagonia. National Geographic Maps also sells maps of the region. For other treks in the region, pick up the book National Geographic’s 100 Hikes of a Lifetime.